Maybe the biggest reason Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz wanted back in the lineup as fast as possible is because of who the Mariners have batting third.
Life is good when you’re the cleanup hitter behind Robinson Cano, whose on-base percentage is almost touching .600.
And, vice versa, life is good when you’re getting better pitches to hit with a bat as fearful as Cruz’s is right behind you.
“No matter how good we’ve been playing, he’s a guy we know is going to help us,” Robinson Cano said. “We’re so happy to have him back. We know he can help us win games.”
Cruz was officially activated from the 10-day disabled list before Saturday’s game against the Oakland Athletics. He had slipped on a dugout step March 31 against the Cleveland Indians, just after hitting his second two-run home run in as many games.
How eager was he to get back into the lineup?
“I was going to play him or he was going to kill me,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Twist the manager’s arm enough and you’re in there.”
That means hot-hitting Mitch Haniger slides to sixth in the order. Haniger has 12 RBI in 11 games to go with a team-best three home runs (including the go-ahead three-run shot with two outs in Friday’s 7-4 win).
“Obviously it lengthens (our lineup),” Servais said. “Haniger has done a great job filling in in the middle of it between Cano and (Kyle) Seager, and he has been presented with a lot of opportunities. The guys at the top of the lineup have got on base a ton.”
No one more than Cano.
He’s been selective. And when he has swung, he’s hit to all parts of the park.
Cano said he spent too much of last season hacking at pitches out of the zone and that might be at least partially why he had the lowest batting average (.280) of his 14-year career.
“What I’ve been doing is being more patient,” Cano said, “and not chasing pitches. I think that’s the key right now. (I) just try to get on base and look for my pitch and try not to chase out of the zone.”
He’s so far done that better than ever. Cano has swung at just 22.4 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone , according to Fangraphs.
Compare that to last year when he swung at 34.9 percent of pitches out of the zone.
But he’s also just swinging fewer times in general, which is probably because pitchers preferred to face Haniger over Cano, especially at the rate Dee Gordon and Jean Segura have reached base.
He’s reached base safely in all 11 games, including 10 with at least one hit. He leads the American League in batting average (.424) and in on-base percentage (.578) .
“He’s using the whole field. That’s the biggest thing,” Servais said. “He’s not trying to hit homers, he’s trying to have good at-bats. That’s when Robby Cano is dynamite in the batter’s box. He’s really tough to pitch to, and seeing him lay off the number of pitches that he is and taking the walks has been huge.
“Last year we saw a lot of him chasing balls out of the zone every once in a while when he’s anxious. And he hasn’t been doing that at all this year. It’s been great to see.”
But with that takes trust in the bats behind you. And Haniger certainly delivered in that role, including Friday when Cano reached base all four at-bats with three walks. Haniger finished with four RBIs
“You got to give a ton of credit to Hani,” Cano said. “He’s done a great job as the cleanup hitter. He handled that pressure pretty good.”
Cruz probably won’t be at full sprint on a ground ball to shortstop as he continues to recover from his quad and ankle injuries. He said he’s felt better the past two days, and that’s why he advocated so hard to get himself back into the lineup, including calling Servais at his home Friday morning.
“I feel like once I’m in there I can figure it out,” Cruz said. “The adrenaline will be there and trust the work you’ve put into the cage and everything will be fine.”
And Cruz is a 14-year veteran who will turn 38 in July. He said he wasn’t feeling that great out of spring training, either, but then he smacked home runs in each of his first two games.
Any chance he was heading to a minor-league rehab assignment?
“No,” Servais said.
“I feel normal,” Cruz said Saturday. “I ran and it felt pretty good yesterday. The day before I wasn’t sure, but yesterday when I woke up I was like, ‘Oh, this is good.’ And I ran and felt good today. Even better.”
To make room for Cruz, the Mariners optioned right-handed reliever Casey Lawrence to Triple-A Tacoma, leaving eight pitchers in their bullpen.
Why Lawrence and not Chasen Bradford, whom the Mariners recalled when first baseman Ryon Healy went to the disabled list?
Well, the Mariners have another long reliever in left-hander Wade LeBlanc, and Servais said they wanted Lawrence to maybe even get a start with the Rainiers.
“And make sure he can get stretched out a little,” Servais said. “He might even slide into their rotation when he gets down there. It just creates more options for us if something happens.”
Outfielder Ben Gamel still isn’t in Seattle.
He’s on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma while he recovers from a strained oblique, but Servais first thought Gamel could return Friday and said health hasn’t been an issue, just getting his timing back.
But now it appears Gamel might not be back until the Mariners’ second game against the Astros on Tuesday.
Gamel is a left-handed hitter and the Athletics are scheduled to start left-hander Sean Manaea on Sunday. Then the Astros are likely to open with left-hander Dallas Keuchel on Monday. The Mariners had Ben Gamel cap and hair night without him on Friday.
“He’s getting close,” Servais said. “Where we are at now is finding the right fit roster-wise. … Trying to line it up where it fits where he comes back and he can play and get in a decent rhythm verses coming back and sitting on the bench a few days.”
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said on 710-AM radio on Thursday that the feel is that they would keep four outfielders when Gamel returns, though the Mariners would also need to add a fifth starting pitcher on Tuesday, which they’ve said would be left-hander Ariel Miranda from Triple-A Tacoma. The Mariners would need to clear up two spots on their active 25-man roster for those two transactions.